Friday, April 1, 2011

THE ARROGANCE OF HUMAN ASCENDANCY

(This blog was first published on The Painful Truth Blog several weeks ago.  I'm posting it here because I feel it is a timely subject.)

The human race stands in a position of dominance on planet earth. We are clearly the most highly evolved species.

Our brains and minds are the most highly developed in the entire biological sphere we inhabit. We alone have the capacity for advanced speech. No other creature has the manual dexterity, due largely to our opposable thumbs, to invent and manufacture quite like we can. No other being besides us has the capacity to reach for the stars or even realize that there is a vast universe out there to explore. It’s only recently that even we realized that.

We’re obviously superior in many important ways.

That fact leads many of us to assume that everything, including other creatures, is here to exploit and use as we damn well see fit. Like the attitude ancient royalty and pre-civil war slaveholders had toward “lesser” humans, we tend to regard all other creatures as simply there for our exploitation. We are prone to think they don’t have the same quality and depth of feelings and emotions we do.

This is a very flawed attitude.

I’ve always been somewhat cognizant of the fact that other inhabitants of this world do have feelings and emotions, but I still thought they were vastly inferior to what I as a human would feel.

All of that changed in the last few years as three small dogs entered into my world. We are the doting owners of a female Pomchi and two male Pomeranians. I have been fascinated to see how much like human children those pooches are. I am convinced that all they would need is a hyoid bone and a human-like larynx and they would carry on kindergarten level conversations with us. They certainly know a great deal of what we are saying and we are learning to interpret what their barks, growls and looks mean. Watch this video to see what I mean: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/11/dog-breaks-vocabulary-rec_n_804728.html.

The little Pomchi and one of the Pomeranians absolutely love peanuts. I keep a large sack of roasted peanuts beside my recliner. As I’m watching the TV, the little Pomchi will park herself in front of my recliner and gaze steadily at me. If I don’t notice, there is soon a little bark telling me to adjust the portable steps for her and then she watches for me to put my hand down into the sack. Up she comes and parks herself with an expectant look like a child waiting for candy. My heart just melts at such moments. She can also hear me open a carton of ice cream from the master bedroom, and if on the bed, bark to be put down for her share.

Daisy, the Pomchi, especially loves to have her tummy rubbed and petted. She usually sleeps between us and will often roll over and impatiently convulse her little body to let us know she wants her tummy rub. When she is sitting on my lap and being petted by my right hand, she will daintily reach out her paw to my left hand in what I call her “tummy dummy” reminder.

Years ago, a friend who had a large property in the Altadena, CA foothills with horses and a couple cows commented how he always resented putting gas in his car, but he never resented feeding his animals. It’s much the same with our dogs. We just don’t resent sharing anything with them when we see the joy it gives them. They are so much like little human children.

And, they want to please us, just like normal children do. If we have to scold them for something, their little crests fall and they look oh so miserable. We are careful to shower them with love and praise as soon as possible afterward.

None of them have ever been struck. As a result, they have no fear or hostility toward any human. Yes, they will bark at all visitors, but its all a territorial “pack” thing. Their tails are wagging and they are ready to love and be loved. Nipping a visitor never enters their minds.

When they have been left alone for a while and we come back, it’s like children welcoming daddy and mommy back. We have to let them in the car or they could get run over. Trouble stands up like a little man and does a dance we call the “lambada.” His brother is starting to do the same. Daisy is more sedate. She just waddles up in all her plumpness, tail wagging, and waits to be greeted and petted. Then, they anxiously wait to see if we brought them something.

Dogs fit in so well with humans because they are in many ways very similar to humans.

They form packs (families). They are hierarchical with top males and females. They mark their territories – much like Mexican gang bangers “tag” theirs. If we had evolved a keener sense of smell, one can only wonder what we might see taggers doing. Would save them a lot of money for spray paint. Getting acquainted by intimately sniffing each other would also add an interesting dimension to life!

Besides, there are known benefits to having a pet. This recent article points out six of them: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joan-liebmannsmith-phd/6-health-benefits-of-owni_b_795430.html#s209450.

Dogs also learn quickly from experience. One morning, our oldest Pomeranian, who was a pup near a year old at the time, came yelping and howling from under our bed. Like all pups, he liked to chew just about anything and that, along with other mischief, earned him the name “Trouble.” The compulsion included electrical cords. I soon found that he had chewed through one of the control cords to our sleep number air bed – and gotten a painful shock for his “trouble.” He has never touched an electrical cord since!

We hope his two-year younger brother, Jubilation or “Jubi,” learns a similar lesson without dire consequences. Like children, you just can’t guard them from all hazards. They have to learn some things the hard way and one can only hope without too many serious repercussions. The main cord he has damaged so far was the charger cord for my wife’s cell Phone. Those small cords carry very few amps or voltage so he didn’t learn from it.

We aren’t sure whether they’ve learned the lesson about skunks yet. A skunk family chose our alley for a temporary “stomping ground” last summer. Of course, the Invaders had to be challenged. Yep, we had some “de-skunking” to do. Luckily, not a direct, close-up hit. As an old North Dakota ranch kid, I know how devastating that can be. It makes for instant “canus non grata.”

Neither of us are cat fans, but the stories people tell us about their cats make it plain that they have their own unique personalities and feelings. I’m certain, if we had a cat, and we won’t because of a severe cat allergy on my part, that I would find many things to love about the animal and could relate equally interesting facts.

Other creatures are a lot more intelligent and emotionally aware than we would perhaps suppose. Their feelings run deep and they suffer from pain, deprivation and loss very much like we humans do. Anyone who takes on a pet needs to realize that and treat that animal as a feeling, sentient being every bit as worthy of our concerned respect as any other member of the family. If you’re unable or unwilling to provide that loving respect and care, it’s best to forget taking on the responsibility.

Many denizens of the animal kingdom demonstrate great awareness. Elephants have great mental capacity and their care for each other is in many ways human-like. Watch them playing with snow at a German zoo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/28/elephants-play-in-snow_n_801933.html#s216103. Dolphins can be trained to do a great variety of complicated things, as can whales. Both are extremely intelligent. Even the lowly octopus has a very highly developed brain. The longer we study, the more we learn and the more our commonality of shared abilities and traits with other creatures becomes apparent.

I was amazed by the story of Washoe, a female chimpanzee who had been taught to communicate in computer sign language. She learned to name things, and when asked what a watermelon was, she gave it the name, “fruit drink.” If that isn’t a synonym for “watermelon,” what would you call it? That was human-like reasoning!

We recently watched The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill as the first film we pulled up on instant Netflix. It was amazing and brought tears to our eyes several times.

Exactly what life, mind, brain, spirit, soul, etc. all may mean, it is clear to me that all higher creatures, although still greatly inferior to us in many respects, share a great deal of our mental and emotional characteristics. We have a responsibility to respect them and care about how we treat them.

We don’t need to go to the extreme of becoming vegetarians, never using their capacities for our service, etc. Many animals add a great deal to human existence, and if they are treated with humane care and respect, their lives are also enhanced. A triple crown race horse, for example, usually leads the life of an aristocrat – great accommodations, constant attention, the best of food and medical care, and lots and lots of sex with the best and most beautiful fillies in the equine kingdom. A Solomon couldn’t have it better!

Ask any blind man what he thinks of his guide dog. I have a blind friend who once had one and wishes he still did.

I’m not a fanatic. You won’t find me picketing or sabotaging research labs that utilize animals in experiments. I do hope they are treated humanely and I would push for that. I don’t go around looking for fur coats to throw paint on. I eat steak and most other meats with no pangs of conscience. All I have to do is open my mouth and look in a mirror to see that I resemble a wolf much more than a sheep dentally. My whole digestive system is that of an omnivore. I wear and use leather.

What I’m saying is that we have a responsibility to treat all species with respect and an awareness of their sentience and intrinsic worthiness. We are part of the animal kingdom and share a distant kinship with all of them. As humans, we are all cousins somewhere in the past. We are also some kind of relative to all other creatures, no matter how many millions of degrees removed.

We need to quit feeling so superior and haughty.

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